For Christmas I got willpower. (I could leave it there – what a present you’d think!) Under the tree, along with a soft sweater, a small power drill, and other treats, I found the book “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. In the midst of New Year goal setting and resolution making, this book rewards a read.

It’s written by a duo whose credentials deliver both science and lively writing. Baumeister, a psychologist, explores self-control – willpower. Tierney, a science columnist for the New York Times, engagingly mingles psychological studies with the experiences of real people. Geared toward the curious common reader, the book works just fine.

In experiments in the late 1990s, Baumeister was the first to identify willpower as a muscle, and reveal that, although it was fatigued by overwork, it can also be strengthened. He discovered that the physical basis of willpower is in finite supply, and that we use the same resource for widely different things. His experiments, often involving children left alone in rooms with tempting marshmallows, showed that self-control employed in one situation diminished the chance of self-control being available for other demands, such as learning or decision-making.

When the authors identify all the possible temptations in an ordinary day that test self-control (exacerbated mightily now in the wired age), it’s easy to see how we wear out our willpower by evening. We all have different weak spots – strong willpower in one instance and failure in another, and by the time families come together at dinnertime, emotional self-control might be in short supply.

Baumeister and Tierney update lessons from historical figures like Charles Darwin on money and Anthony Trollope on time management with introductions to modern tools that track money spending and Internet usage. (I shudder to think about seeing a printout from RescueTime.com, a program that keeps track of when you are actively working on a document and when you wander off to view the images in People magazine.) The authors quantify how much time the average person spends “just checking email quickly.”

An intriguing chapter discusses the “To Do” list, and the authors point out how exhausting it is to ignore undone tasks, because the act of avoidance wearies the unconscious. (But according to the authors, simply putting the tasks on a list mollifies the unconscious.) I’m only halfway through the book, but suspect that depleted willpower gets in the way of creative life – an unconscious fretting about the undones can’t easily solve a problem imaginatively.

The authors also suggest identifying a clear time limit for a task. For example, I don’t have to sort the photos for all of 2011 (I’m afraid to look but actually 2010 might also be undone), but I can promise to give it two hours. Then the old favorite “well begun is half-done” might click in.

Sleep matters, and food matters also. Glucose fuels self-control, a sticky wicket since simple sugar makes things worse – but the protein in a handful of nuts can nourish willpower!

5 thoughts on “Willpower

  1. “I suspect that depleted willpower gets in the way of creative life” – absolutely! I have that Willpower book on my shelf. If I could just get out of bed, I’d read it ;). xo

      • That’s a marshmallow with a NOT though it. No marshmallows! And I’d add to that, no marshmallow-flavored vodka (a new product), ewwwww. Oh, and I did eventually get out of bed today …

  2. Katy, this book and your interpretations seem both fascinating and a bit daunting. I had to look up the word:
    the trait of resolutely controlling your own behavior
    synonym: possession, self-command, self-control, self-possession, self-will, will power, firmness of purpose

    My ‘undones’ and ‘half-dones’ and ‘half-beguns’ are everywhere! The good news is that I received two notices that you had posted; clearly a kink in the system.

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